BY RON BUKLEY
Concerned about traffic problems, the Royal Palm Beach Planning & Zoning Commission postponed approval Tuesday of a site plan application for a charter school set to take over the vacant Albertsons building on Southern Blvd.
The new Renaissance Charter School at Palms West is slated to open next school year on the 9.9-acre site near the intersection of Southern and Crestwood boulevards.
The request was for a site plan modification and special exception use approval that would allow for a “public and private academic institution” on the site.
The school will offer classes from kindergarten through eighth grade and is open to any student in Palm Beach County. There is no tuition to attend, but students must be selected, often by lottery process, Charter Schools USA Senior Manager of Development Sandy Castro told commissioners.
The school will have approximately 1,145 students with about 60 staff members. There would be no bus system, meaning parents would have to drop off their students and pick them up.
Commissioners supported the school but worried that the proposed traffic pattern could cause accidents.
Development Review Coordinator Kevin Erwin told commissioners that there are several entrances and exits to the property, which the school would share with several other businesses, such as a Walgreens pharmacy and a Wendy’s restaurant.
“They will be opening a cross-access to the west with the Palms West [Hospital] property,” Erwin said. “There are several points of access to the property.”
Erwin said that there would be a modified traffic pattern during the drop-off and pick-up hours of the school.
The proposed traffic plan would have cars entering off Southern and traveling up to the school, with a bypass lane for those who are not entering the school. A second option would be for parents to enter in the middle entrance off Crestwood, but would require traffic direction.
“There would have to be a traffic control person there,” Erwin said.
But Commissioner Genevieve Lambiase said she was concerned about present traffic problems caused by drivers trying to turn left out of the plaza to head northbound on Crestwood.
“I’m concerned that there’s going to be an accident,” she said. “There are bushes and things there that already make it a blind spot. But with the amount of students, that could be a problem. I think it will be confusing, and especially where Wendy’s and Walgreens are.”
Dan Taylor, an attorney representing the school, said his clients have worked closely with village staff on the traffic patterns. “That’s very important to us,” he said. “We’re invested in the safety of the children and the parents. We’ve worked very closely with staff.”
Arturo Perez, the traffic engineer for the project, told commissioners that compared with traffic when Albertsons was there, traffic would be elevated in the morning but slower in the afternoon.
“Everyone will be in the school before 8 a.m.,” he said, noting that pick-up and drop-off times could be staggered to ease traffic.
Planning & Zoning Administrator Bradford O’Brien said RPB staff had discussed having law enforcement there in the morning to direct traffic.
But Dan Shalloway, representing Charter Schools USA, said that if constant police presence is deemed necessary, the school would put in a traffic light on Crestwood Blvd. “If we need a policeman there all the time, we’ll just go with a traffic light,” he said. “It would make more sense to put a light there.”
O’Brien said that the light would help those turning north on Crestwood. But Perez said the light would be placed only if the county agreed it was warranted.
Lambiase said it would be warranted. “I can tell you right now,” she said, “with the amount of traffic you’re talking about, you’re going to need a light or someone to direct traffic.”
Commissioner Darrell Lange said he was worried about the internal traffic pattern and felt it should be a loop.
“You would need to paint arrows on the ground for anyone not going to the school to know where they are going,” he said. “This doesn’t make sense to me. Giving people so many options of where they may or may not go, and creating three major intersections, there’s no way I would vote for this traffic plan. You cannot have this many choices.”
Lange was also concerned that parents would be driving through the Wendy’s and Walgreens parking lots. “You’re dictating to where you’re affecting other businesses,” he said.
Lange pointed to H.L. Johnson Elementary School, which uses a loop drop-off system to keep parents off the major roads. “You could loop them one way and be in and out,” he said. “The only reason schools like H.L. Johnson work… is because you don’t give [parents] three options to get in and out of a site.”
Lambiase made a motion to pass the site plan modification as presented, but it failed unanimously.
Lange said he would want to see the traffic pattern come before them with modifications.
“I think we’d be doing a disservice as a commission not to,” he said. “We’re going to have real-life situations. We have too many situations where it’s unfair for you as an engineer to guess what’s in the mind of the people visiting the site. We want the school there. Is there a way to exclude the traffic and have them address the issues and bring it back?”
O’Brien said the commission could re-evaluate the traffic patterns at its Tuesday, Feb. 28 meeting. “That would enable the applicants to go before the [Royal Palm Beach Village Council] on March 1,” he said.
The commissioners unanimously voted to postpone the issue until then.
“It’s not that we don’t support the project,” Lange said. “But [my experience] is telling me this won’t work. I think it’s solvable.”